Like Viet Namese? You Will Like This

The Nguyen family, in the early 1980s in San Jose, Calif., where his parents owned the New Saigon Mini Market
Viet Tkhô giòn Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His novel The Sympathizer won the năm nhâm thìn Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five sầu other awards. His new novel The Committed is out March 3.

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Love it or leave it. Have sầu you heard someone say this? Or have you said it? Anyone who has heard these five words knows what it means, because it almost always refers to America. Anyone who has heard this sentence knows it is a loaded gun, pointed at them.

As for those who say this sentence, vì chưng you mean it with gentleness, with empathy, with sarcasm, with satire, with any kind of humor that is not ill humored? Or is the sentence always said with very clear menace?

I ask out of genuine curiosity, because I have never said this sentence myself, in reference lớn any country or place. I have sầu never said “love sầu it or leave it” to my son, and I hope I never will, because that is not the kind of love I want to feel, for him or for my country, whichever country that might be.

The country in which I am writing these words is France, which is not my country but which colonized Vietphái mạnh, where I was born, for two-thirds of a century. French rule ended only 17 years before my birth. My parents and their parents never knew anything but French colonialism. Perhaps because of this history, part of me loves France, a love that is due, in some measure, to having been mentally colonized by France.

Aware of my colonization, I do not love France the way many Americans love sầu France, the ones who dream of the Eiffel Tower, of sipping coffee at Les Deux Magots, of eating a fine meal in Provence. This is a romantic love, set lớn accordion music or Édith Piaf, which I feel only fleetingly. I cannot help but see colonialism’s legacies, visible throughout Paris if one wishes khổng lồ see them: the people of African và Arab origins who are here because France was there in their countries of birth. Romanticizing their existence, at the margins of French society, would be difficult, which is why Americans rarely talk about them as part of the fantasy of Paris.

The fantasy is tempting, especially because of my Vietnamese history. Most of the French of Vietnamese origins I know are content, even if they are aware of their colonized history. Why wouldn’t they be? A Moroccan friover in Paris points to the skin I mô tả with these French of Vietnamese ancestry và says, “You are trắng here.” But I am not white in America, or not yet. I was made in America but born in Vietphái mạnh, và my origins are inseparable from three wars: the one the Vietnamese fought against the French; the one the Vietnamese fought against each other; và the one the U.S. fought in Vietnam giới.

Many Americans consider the war to lớn be a noble, if possibly flawed, example of American good intentions. And while there is some truth to lớn that, it was also simply a continuation of French colonization, a war that was racist and imperiamenu at its roots and in its practices. As such, this war was just one manifestation of a centuries-long expansion of the American empire that began from its own colonial birth & ran through the frontier, the American West, Mexico, Hawaii, Guam, Puerkhổng lồ Rico, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Vietnam & now the Middle East.

One war might be a mistake. A long series of wars is a pattern. Indians were the original terrorists in the American imagination. The genocide committed against them by Trắng settlers is Thanksgiving’s ugly side, not quite remembered but not really forgotten, even in France, where images of a half-naked Native American in a feathered headdress can also be found. Centuries later, the latent memory of genocide — or the celebration of conquest — would surface when American GIs called hostile Vietnamese territory “Indian country.” Now Muslims are the new gooks while terrorists are the new communists, since communists are no longer very threatening and every society needs an Other to lớn define its boundaries và funnel its fears.


The Nguyen family, in the early 1980s in San Jose, Calif., where his parents owned the New Saigon Mini Market

Many Americans vị not like khổng lồ hear these things. An American veteran of the war, an enlisted man, wrote me in rage after reading an essay of mine on the scars that Vietnamese refugees carried. Americans had sacrificed themselves for my country, my family, me, he said. I should be grateful. When I wrote hyên baông xã & said he was the only one hurt by his rage, he wrote baông chồng with an even angrier letter. Another American veteran, a former officer, now a dentist và doctor, read my novel The Sympathizer and sent me a letter more measured in tone but with a message just as blunt. You seem to love the communists so much, he said. Why don’t you go baông chồng to Vietnam? And take your son with you.

I was weary & did not write baông xã khổng lồ hlặng. I should have sầu. I would have pointed out that he must not have finished my novel, since the last quarter indicts communism’s failures in Vietphái mạnh. Perhaps he never made it past being offended by the first quarter of the novel, which condemns America’s war in Vietphái nam. Perhaps he never made it lớn the middle of the novel, by which point I was also satirizing the failures of the government under which I was born, the Republic of Vietnam, the south.

I made such criticisms not because I hated all the countries that I have sầu known but because I love sầu them. My love sầu for my countries is difficult because their histories, lượt thích those of all countries, are complicated. Every country believes in its own best self và from these visions has built beautiful cultures, France included. And yet every country is also soiled in the blood of conquest and violence, Vietnam giới included. If we love sầu our countries, we owe it lớn them not just lớn flatter them but lớn tell the truth about them in all their beauty and their brutality, America included.

If I had written that letter, I would have asked this dentist và doctor why he had to threaten my son, who was born in America. His citizenship is natural, which is as good as the citizenship of the dentist, the doctor & the veteran. And yet even my son is told to lớn love it or leave sầu it. Is such a telling American? Yes. And no. “Love it or leave it” is completely American và yet un-American at the same, just like me.

Unlượt thích my son, I had to lớn become naturalized. Did I love sầu America at the of my naturalization? It is hard to say, because I had never said “I love you” to anyone, my parents included, much less a country. But I still wanted to swear my oath of citizenship to America as an adolescent. At the same, I wanted to keep my Vietnamese name. I had tried various American names on for kích thước. All felt unnatural. Only the name my parents gave sầu me felt natural, possibly because my father never ceased telling me, “You are 100% Vietnamese.”

By keeping my name, I could be made inkhổng lồ an American but not forget that I was born in Vietnam. Paradoxically, I also believed that by keeping my name, I was making a commitment khổng lồ America. Not the America of those who say “love it or leave it,” but lớn my America, to an America that I would force to lớn say my name, rather than khổng lồ an America that would force a name on me.

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Naming my own son was then a challenge. I wanted an American name for him that expressed the complexities of our America. I chose Ellison, after the great writer Ralph Waldo Ellison, himself named after Ralph Walvày Emerson, the great philosopher. My son’s genealogy would be black & trắng, literary & philosophical, African American và American. This genealogy gestures at the greatness of America and the horror of it as well, the democracy as well as the slavery. Some Americans like lớn believe sầu that the greatness has succeeded the horror, but khổng lồ me, the greatness and the horror exist simultaneously, as they have from the very beginning of our American history & perhaps lớn its over. A name like Ellison compresses the beauty và the brutality of America into seven letters, a summation of despair and hope.


This is a heavy burden khổng lồ lay on one’s son, although it is no heavier than the burden placed on me by my parents. My first name is that of the Vietnamese people, whose patriotic mythology says we have sầu suffered for centuries to lớn be independent & không tính tiền. And yet today Vietphái nam, while being independent, is hardly không tính phí. I could never go bachồng to Vietphái nam for good, because I could never be a writer there & say the things I say without being sent to lớn prison.

So I choose the freedom of America, even at a when “love it or leave sầu it” is no longer just rhetorical. The current Administration is threatening even naturalized citizens with denaturalization & deportation. Perhaps it is not so far-fetched lớn imagine that one day someone like me, born in Vietphái mạnh, might be sent baông chồng lớn Vietnam giới, despite having made more out of myself than many native-born Americans. If so, I would not take my son with me. Vietphái mạnh is not his country. America is his country, và perhaps he will know for it a love that will be less complicated and more intuitive than mine.

He will also — I hope — know a father’s love that is less complicated than mine. I never said “I love sầu you” when I was growing up because my parents never said “I love you” to me. That does not mean they did not love me. They loved me so much that they worked themselves to exhaustion in their new America. I hardly ever got khổng lồ see them. When I did, they were too tired lớn be joyful. Still, no matter how weary they were, they always made dinner, even if dinner was often just boiled organ meat. I grew up on intestine, tongue, tripe, liver, gizzard and heart. But I was never hungry.

The memory of that visceral love, expressed in sacrifice, is in the marrow of my bones. A word or a tone can make me feel the deepness of that love, as happened to lớn me when I overheard a conversation one day in my neighborhood drugstore in Los Angeles. The man next khổng lồ me was Asian, not handsome, plainly dressed. He spoke southern Vietnamese on his cell phone. “Con oi, Ba day. Con an com chua?” He looked a little rough, perhaps working class. But when he spoke to his child in Vietnamese, his voice was very tender. What he said cannot be translated. It can only be felt.

Literally, he said, “Hello, child. This is your father. Have you eaten rice yet?” That means nothing in English, but in Vietnamese it means everything. “Con oi, Ba day. Con an com chua?” This is how hosts greet guests who come khổng lồ the home, by asking them if they have eaten. This was how parents, who would never say “I love you,” told their children they loved them. I grew up with these customs, these emotions, these intimacies, & when I heard this man say this to lớn his child, I almost cried. This is how I know that I am still Vietnamese, because my history is in my blood and my culture is my umbilical cord. Even if my Vietnamese is imperfect, which it is, I am still connected to lớn Vietphái mạnh and to Vietnamese refugees worldwide.

And yet, when I was growing up, some Vietnamese Americans would tell me I was not really Vietnamese because I did not speak perfect Vietnamese. Such a statement is a cousin of “love sầu it or leave it.” But there should be many ways of being Vietnamese, just as there are many ways of being French, many ways of being American. For me, as long as I feel Vietnamese, as long as Vietnamese things move me, I am still Vietnamese. That is how I feel the love of country for Vietphái mạnh, which is one of my countries, and that is how I feel my Vietnamese self.

In claiming that defiant Vietnamese self, one that disregards anyone else’s definition, I claim my American self too. Against all those who say “love sầu it or leave sầu it,” who offer only one way to lớn be American, I insist on the America that allows me to be Vietnamese & is enriched by the love sầu of others. So it is that every day I ask my son if he has eaten yet và every day I tell my son I love hlặng. This is how love of country và love of family bởi not differ. I want khổng lồ create a family where I will never say “love it or leave it” lớn my son, just as I want a country that will never say the same to anyone.

Most Americans will not feel what I feel when they hear the Vietnamese language, but they feel the love sầu of country in their own ways. Perhaps they feel that deep, emotional love when they see the flag or hear the national anthem. I admit that those symbols mean little to me, because they divide as much as unify. Too many people, from the highest office in the l& down, have used those symbols to lớn essentially tell all Americans khổng lồ love sầu it or leave sầu it.

Being immune khổng lồ the flag và the anthem does not make me less American than those who love those symbols. Is it not more important that I love the substance behind those symbols rather than the symbols themselves? The principles. Democracy, echất lượng, justice, hope, peace và especially freedom, the freedom to write và to think whatever I want, even if my freedoms và the beauty of those principles have all been nurtured by the blood of genocide, slavery, conquest, colonization, imperial war, forever war. All of that is America, our beautiful and brutal America.


I did not understand the contradiction that was our America during my youth in San Jose, Calif., in the 1970s and 1980s. Baông xã then I only wanted lớn be American in the simplest way possible, partly in resistance against my father’s demand that I be 100% Vietnamese. My father felt that deep love sầu for his country because he had lost it when we fled Vietphái nam as refugees in 1975. If my parents held on lớn their Vietnamese identity and culture fiercely, it was only because they wanted their country baông chồng, a that many Americans would surely understand.

Then the U.S. re-established relations with Vietphái mạnh in 1994, and my parents took the first opportunity lớn go trang chính. They went twice, without me, lớn visit a country that was just emerging from postwar poverty & desperation. Whatever they saw in their homel&, it affected my father deeply. After the second trip, my parents never again returned khổng lồ Vietphái nam. Instead, over the next Thanksgiving dinner, my father said, “We’re Americans now.”

At last, my father had claimed America. I should have been elated, & part of me was as we sat before our exotic meal of turkey, mashed potatoes và cranberry sauce, which my brother had bought from a supermarket because no one in my family knew how khổng lồ cook these specialties that we ate only once a year. But if I also felt uneasy, it was because I could not help but wonder: Which America was it?

This appears in the November 26, 2018 issue of

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